Star Trekking VI: The Undiscovered Country

Posted: June 19, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews, Retrospectives

*Review contains spoilers

star_trek_vi_ver2Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

If the original series Star Trek films were made today, there’s a great chance we never would have seen The Undiscovered Country. We currently live in the era of the reboot, if a series fails once, we can just start over again. But before 2005, that wasn’t really an option. Movie franchises were faced with a simple choice in the face of defeat; either stop entirely, or try to do better next time. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is unquestionably a failure, though rather than let the film series fizzle out, the filmmakers marched on to give the original crew a more fitting send off. Nicholas Meyer (director of The Wrath of Khan) was brought back on board, and the story would draw on contemporary events like the collapse of the Soviet Union through allegory. The end result is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a film which proves a great finale for the beloved crew while fully embracing the core beliefs of the franchise.

The alien race known as the Klingons are in mortal danger. The depletion of their ozone layer and the destruction of their primary energy production facility has placed the warrior race in a weakened state, to the point that they reach out for help. The Federation argues about what is to be done. Some say the Klingons are not to be trusted and should be left to die, or worse yet, obliterated now while the race is weak. Ultimately though, the Federation decide on peace, thus Kirk and the Enterprise are sent to escort Klingon chancellor to Earth for negotiations. Kirk is resistant, given his violent history with the Klingons and his personal animosity towards them, but Spock points out an old Vulcan proverb; “Only Nixon could go to China.” However the negotiations are complicated by a web of conspiracy which throws not only the fate of the Enterprise into chaos, but all of the galaxy.

From the plot synopsis alone, the politcal allegories make themselves known. It’s clear the situation between the Federation and the Klingons is meant to represent the aftermath of the Cold War and the future of both the United States and Russia. This is a pretty stirring and ambitious move which I appreciated a lot. It takes a lot of courage to tackle big political issues in what is ostensibly a blockbuster, especially when they would have been extremely relevant in 1991. It’s also important to note despite how topical the subject matter was, none of it feels the least bit dated, in large part because there is something more grand going on here. Beyond the allegory, the story here fully embraces the Star Trek ideals of peace and mutual co-operation. The title The Undiscovered Country refers to the future, hopefully one of peace and prosperity. There are elements of these themes throughout the other films, but none of them tackle the themes as thoroughly as The Undiscovered Country. I also really like how the film depicts the road to peace as a hard one. Due to aggressive camera work, darker lighting, and the story itself, this is at points the darkest of all the Star Trek films, though it only makes the hopeful ending all the more powerful. Also, on a purely storytelling level, it’s nice to see the running thread of the Klingons finally addressed, especially so well. The Klingon spectre has loomed over most of the films, and in the case of The Final Frontier (and to a lesser extent The Search for Spock) they were treated like cartoon characters. Here they feel like a real race, fleshed out and interesting.

The story and themes and are made all the more complicated by the fact that the heroes are not perfectly morale. Kirk clearly does not trust the Klingons and even says to, “Let them die” in an especially strong moment. The fact that this isn’t a simple tale of the perfect heroes trying to bring peace makes it all the more interesting. Though I should probably address that Kirk’s contempt for the Klingons mostly stem from his son’s death in The Search for Spock, which I never felt was handled well. Still, it works in this film and makes it more interesting so I’ll allow it. In general, imperfection seems a bit of a running theme. Spock makes a crucial error in judgement and the crew’s age is definitely given attention. These aspects don’t dominate the film, but they’re an interesting inclusion and lend to this being the last hurrah from the classic line-up. The villains are also pretty interesting here too. Nobody is really evil, it’s just the characters have different ideologies and are willing to go to extremes for them. They’re still villains, but they have some complexity. Plus, how can you not love Christopher Plummer as a Klingon General?

For much of the first half, The Undiscovered Country goes along near perfectly with great scene after great scene. We get a seen where Sulu and the USS Excelsior (awesome to see him as Captain of his own ship) are hit by the effects of an explosion from a Klingon moon, the Federation debating what is to be done regarding the Klingons, an uncomfortable dinner between the Enterprise crew and the Klingon ambassadors, a tense action scene, and an especially amazing scene where Kirk and Bones are tried by a Klingon court. All of these scenes are well-written, with many boasting some great lines (“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon”) in addition to being very well shot and edited. Really, the only scene I don’t like in this section of the film is the scene where two masked assassins gun down a bunch of Klingons in zero-gravity. The staging is actually very good, but the CGI blood is horrendous and very distracting.

Ultimately though, the worst section of the film comes when Kirk and Bones are actually serving their prison sentence in the mines. I love the idea of the two in prison and I love the build up, but once they actually get there…it’s mostly pretty silly. Kirk gets in a fight with a goofy looking alien, there’s some shenanigans with a shapeshifter, and the whole section just a lot more cartoony. It’s not bad persay, but it’s a lot weaker than the rest of the film and doesn’t fit the more serious and intellectual tone the rest of the film is going for. Thankfully, while this is going on, there’s a genuinely interesting mystery/conspiracy plot aboard the Enterprise involving what fired upon the Klingon ship and who assassinated the Klingon chancellor. There’s a lot of energy to this and the machinations of what played out is fun to see unfold. If the mystery has a weakness, it’s that the answers are pretty easy to see, which I think is a inherent drawback to a film like this. We know the traitor won’t be any of the original crew, and the cast is too big to introduce too many new characters, thus the options are pretty thin. Still, this isn’t a big enough plot point for this to really be a problem. Besides, once all the prison material is done with, the film rebounds in a big way with an excellent climax and a pitch perfect ending (more on that later).

The decision to bring back Nicholas Meyer also proves an excellent one as he brings a lot to the project. The film is very well-shot and paced, and Meyer has a great grasp on the tone. With the exception of the prison material, the whole film as a very serious, almost ominous tone. There’s a real sense of importance to the proceedings. Additionally, Meyers shows great directorial confidence which makes The Undiscovered Country feel a very dignified project. One could probably attribute this to the Cold War parallels, but I argue they’d have felt silly without proper execution. The two go hand in hand. Meyers also proves to be the perfect guy for staging classic Trek action. While there isn’t a ton of action scenes, what is here is executed very well and rivals some of Wrath of Khan‘s best moments. This is especially true of the film’s climax, which involves space battles and an assassination attempt on foot.

The Undiscovered Country is by no means a perfect film. It’s hurt by some weak effects, a lackluster middle section, and an extremely bizarre Christian Slater cameo which gets way too much attention. Still, at it’s best, The Undiscovered Country is excellent. The story is engaging, the themes excellent, the action riveting, it’s everything you could want from a Star Trek film. This brings me to the ending, which brings the curtain down beautifully. Sulu, now captain of his own ship, flies off, while Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov take one last cruise through space as they return home, with Kirk delivering his final Captain’s log. The original crew’s adventures are over, but the Enterprise and Star Trek live on, “to boldly go where no man…where no one has gone before”.


And thus ends my journey though the original series. However “Star Trekking” is not over. Join me next time when I look to a new era of Star Trek with Star Trek: Generations.

  1. brikhaus says:

    Yeah, everything leading up to the prison is amazing. The first half of this film may be the best of anything Star Trek. The years of watching the cast grow together paid off huge dividends here. Even though the middle section is weak, the film definitely ends on a high note. This was a great way for the original cast to go out. Nice review.

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